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Women entering the professions in unprecedented numbers

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In the course of a generation, women have reversed the gender gap at Canadian universities, entering the professions in unprecedented numbers – raising interesting possibilities for future workplace dynamics as they and their diversity-conscious male peers move up the ranks.

For the past decade, women have held roughly 80 per cent of the spots in Canadian veterinary schools. The proportion of women applying to medical school has increased to the extent that 56 per cent of medical students are now female, according to the Association of Faculties of Medicine in Canada. More than half of recent law graduates are women, and females account for 50.5 per cent of all auditors, accountants and investment professionals in Canada, according to research organization Catalyst Canada, which tracks women's workplace progress.

One reason is that the female applicant pool for postgraduate studies is larger – about 60 per cent of Canadian undergraduates are women, whereas, 20 years ago, the female population was underrepresented in universities and colleges "and a key challenge was to make higher education more accessible and welcoming to women," the Conference Board of Canada said in a recent report.

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"While the challenge remains in some of the mathematics, computer and engineering disciplines, the overall gender imbalance tipped in women's favour in Canada in the early 1990s," the Conference Board said.

Veterinary schools in particular, where the ratio of females to males is most pronounced, may be wondering: "Where have all the young men gone?" The doors are open to all applicants, and the most qualified get in, but men are not applying in nearly the same numbers as women, says Elizabeth Lowenger, manager of student affairs at the University of Guelph's veterinary college. (For instance, of the 282 Canadian undergraduates who applied to the University of Guelph's four-year veterinary medicine program in 2012, 231 were female and 51 were male. Of those, 83 females and 17 males were admitted.)

While Ms. Lowenger says the admission standards are, and will remain, "gender blind," the veterinary school's recruitment efforts extend to high-school career days where boys, as well as girls, are encouraged to study hard and consider veterinary medicine as an option. (The Conference Board report says that if Canada wants to even out the gender balance in higher education, provincial governments "will have to take steps to improve the performance of boys in elementary and secondary school" and increase the rates at which they enrol in, and complete, university and college programs.)

Veterinary surgeon Michelle Oblak found that during her doctoral fellowship at the University of Florida in 2012-2013, 60 per cent of her classmates in surgical oncology were male, while the majority of her students at the University of Guelph, where she is an assistant professor, are female. Dr. Oblak is not sure why that's the case, nor is she sure how much it matters, as long as anyone interested in the field has equal opportunity to qualify and apply. "A veterinarian is a veterinarian."

The Conference Board notes that the comparatively lower university and college enrolment rates for men could also be a reflection of more men than women "pursuing apprenticeships and other vocational paths to lucrative careers."

Moreover, although more women than men graduate over all from Canadian colleges and universities, "men still dominate many of the fields with superior employment and income prospects for graduates," the Conference Board said in its report, The Gender Gap in Tertiary Education. "For example, while women are more likely than men to be enrolled in the humanities, social and behavioural sciences, and education, men are much more likely than women to be enrolled in engineering, mathematics and computer and information sciences."

Still, Dr. Oblak and others of her generation born in the late 1970s and early 1980s are bringing different attitudes to the workplace and less rigid definitions of gender roles. It's a generation where family-friendly workplace policies are important to both men and women as they balance their parental and professional responsibilities, Dr. Oblak said.

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"We have grown up with societal expectations that women are nurturing and men are leaders and those types of things. I hope that the culture is shifting to really say anyone can be nurturing, anyone can be a leader in their own right, and it's really a matter of being afforded the opportunity to show your abilities," she said.

"It's really a matter of finding what you are good at and what you love, rather than feeling you have to choose something based on what the previous stereotypical norms were."

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